A War on Contemporary Bildungsromans?

The Chronicle of Higher Education offers an overview of “lad lit,” noting, “Virtually every writer of guy lit is an almost-thirtysomething graduate of an elite college or university.” This is indeed the case, but I have to ask whether this makes any of the novels presented here (Kyle Baker’s Love Monkey, Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision, Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land) distinctly “lad lit.” Aren’t these actually Bildungsromans? Like its taxonomic cousin “chick lit,” many of these titles deal with common themes involving eking out an existence or forming an identity. With chick lit, we see women who are growing out of singledom, debating how to balance a career and snag a man. With lad lit, the novels feature thirtysomething slackers who refuse to grow up, often relying upon the crutch of pop culture to stave off the inevitable growth process.

And that’s the key distinction here among the lad lit and chick lit titles: an individual developing and trying to find a place in society. Kyle Smith’s Tom Farrell is 32 and remarks in the early pages that he is living a lifestyle no less different from the one that he occupied as a teenager, still eating his cereal out of a Star Wars bowl. We have Benjamin Kunkel’s Dwight Wilmerding (a surname perhaps not coincidentally connoting “Bildungsroman”) resorting to checking his e-mail rather than figuring out what to do with his life. Lipsyte’s Lewis Miner can’t even take care of himself, marveling at his sallow-colored teeth in the mirror and harassing various people from his high school. These are all men who live child-like existences and who have deferred the process of growing up for a later time. And the central question of these three novels is whether or not these protagonists will actually grow up. While the emphasis here is contemporary, how different is this really from the book-length formations of Tom Jones or Tristram Shandy?

Now some of these titles may be more popular than literary, nevertheless, they do deal with themes of formation. Ergo, thematically at least, I suspect we may have an interesting assault upon contemporary Bildungsromans.

It’s also important to note that Bildungsromans are not exclusively male and that the work of Jennifer Weiner and Curtis Sittenfeld is no less different. Take, for example, the parallels that one can draw with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a lengthy poem in which a young woman must overcome folkways and expectations in the Victorian period. There is this moment in which Aurora watches another couple in the Sixth Book:

A woman sauntered slow, in front,
Munching an apple,–she left off amazed
As if I had snatched it: that’s not she, at least.
A man walked arm-linked with a lady veiled,
Both heads dropped closer than the need of talk:
They started; he forgot her with his face
And she, herself,–and clung to him as if
My look were fatal.

How different is this really from a chick lit protagonist trash-talking a beautiful couple living a perceived ideal just beyond her reach? Or the prep school tyranny experienced by Sittenfeld’s Lee Fiora? Or Weiner’s Rose Feller plagued by her sister’s seemingly adept way of stringing along men while she remains alone? Interestingly, like Weiner’s work, the prose here relies on observations which reflect the protgaonist’s anxieties and hesitations.

Beyond the stigma against popular tales which feature happy endings (or perhaps it’s those decidedly unmasculine pink covers; thankfully, I live in San Francisco and this is not much of a problem while reading on the subway), I’m wondering if the pejorative labels often attached to chick lit and lad lit might represent a reluctance in our literary culture to contemplate the delayed impulse that many twentysomethings have in forming careers, in getting married, and in growing up.

The recent Times contemporary fiction list, with its paucity of authors under 40, has generated much discussion about who might be “the voice of our generation.” I think this question is moot. There are plenty of authors attempting to chronicle exactly what twentysomethings and thirtysomethings are going through these days. The problem is that their work suffers an instant crib death when received by the literary community. Jonathan Safran Foer is turned into a punching bag. Benjamin Kunkel is drowned in the hype. Curtis Sittenfeld declares war on any book even remotely resembling chick lit. While it is perfectly acceptable for Updike and Roth to turn out endless books about middle-aged men entering into adulterous affairs or having midlife crises, it is apparently unacceptable for younger writers to write about younger protagonists trying to figure out their lives. By this token, why aren’t Updike and Roth torn new ones for “geezer lit?”

Perhaps the time has come to stop attaching dismissive labels to these books and consider how contemporary authors are attempting to bring back issues of formation in a literary climate which declares sincerity a strumpet and novels involving younger people mere baubles.

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3 Comments

  1. Great rant, Ed, but “Ouch!” on this: “With chick lit, we see women who are growing out of singledom, debating how to balance a career and snag a man.” I’m sure chick-lit books like the stereotype you describe are out there, but that by no means exhaustively describes the subgenre.

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